The mega-rich deserve just a bit of our sympathy.
At least, that’s the idea underpinning “Succession,” the new drama created by comedy writer Jesse Armstrong (the U.K.’s “Peep Show”) and executive produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay (the Oscar-winning writer and director of “The Big Short”). The show assays Logan Roy (Brian Cox), the Scottish-born head of media and entertainment conglomerate Waystar Royco, and his four children, sharp-elbowed beasts, all of whom aren’t content merely with being wealthy. They want a bit of the power that Logan is unwilling to cede, and their inability to wrest it from him is both comic and, in moments, tragic.
Any resemblances to a certain other foreign-born media magnate are likely no coincidence. (Armstrong is the author of an unproduced screenplay titled Murdoch.) But the family dynamic, at least, feels original. Along with a hippie-ish son from a first marriage (Alan Ruck, neglected by his family but given some of the best material by his show), the Roys comprise Kendall (Jeremy Strong), reasserting his birthright as a corporate superstar after having been derailed by addiction; Roman (Kieran Culkin), who hides sharp ambition behind diffident, dissolute wit; and Siobhan (Sarah Snook), striking out on her own as a political consultant but still entangled in the family’s drama. That drama comes fast and furious, as the show transpires largely in the wake of a medical incident that sidelines Logan, even as he remains the head of a corporation that more closely resembles a cult of personality.
The show’s strengths and weaknesses come hand-in-hand; its pulpy willingness to be its silliest self can be great fun, but can also transport a show that often tries to say something real about the hazards of generational wealth into too-easy comedy, or fantasy. I admit I rolled my eyes whenever someone referred to Siobhan by her family nickname, “Shiv.” (It’s too on the nose for a sharp competitor who plays by prison-yard rules.) And Roman is a character of whom we likely see more than we need; his relentless bon mots begin to feel curdled after a while. The point, that a certain kind of blase, seen-it-all rich kid can too easily confuse cruelty for wit, is amply made. But others of the family’s interactions are stilted in a manner that serves the show. That no character seems to understand how to talk to any other makes sense; their discomfort with one another is the result of a climate of mutual suspicion and antipathy.
Generally, though, the show delivers on its promise of soapy interactions between family members for whom money has complicated everything. Kendall holds his siblings — his competitors — at arm’s length, while Siobhan’s impending marriage to a fast-climbing Waystar executive (Matthew Macfadyen, a sleazy standout) is haunted by the question of whether it’s a love match or a mutually beneficial corporate merger. Aspects of the show play a bit like the high-finance camp of Showtime’s “Billions,” but reinterpreted through HBO’s prestige-y filter; the show has the skittering camera movements and the pounding, inescapable score of a show with greater ambitions than just documenting one clan’s ludicrous devotion to making one another unhappy.
“Succession,” indeed, is at its best, and its most purely enjoyable, when it pushes past the temptation to be fun alone. The leonine Cox, for instance, sets a tone of family ferocity that’s engaging because it’s great, not just indulgent. Each family member follows his lead in their own deranged way, particularly Macfadyen, who brings into each scene an aura of menace and the stench of impostor’s flop sweat. This show’s core audience, those who thrill to the misdeeds of the powerful, is likely to find and embrace it, as “Billions'” has. But I wish this season had delivered a bit more nourishment at the banquet. One thread, not yet fully developed, involves Roy’s control of his assets’ political messaging; we see protesters raging against the dissension he sows and a bit of his own hard-right views. I craved a further sense of what it means to have his kind of power — and why the succession matters for all of us, for reasons beyond which character gets to lord over the rest.
What we see of the Roys’ power tends to come through their interactions with functionaries and underlings, whom they boss around and maltreat in ways that bring to mind how thrilling and how wearying “Game of Thrones” would be if it only featured the Lannisters. In the first episode, at a family softball game, Roman offers the gamekeeper’s young son a million-dollar check should he make a home run; once he’s tagged out by the adults, the scion tears the check up in front of him. It’s not easy being rich, sure, but it’s a lot easier than not being rich — or than caring about the travails of the wealthy, spoiled, and ultimately unpleasant.